M c S W E E N E Y ' S B I G
N I G H T
Thursday, September 9, 2000, Galapagos Art Space,
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, USA
I was preadolescent and impressionable, dragged through galleries by my mother. We saw good stuff. We saw shitty stuff. I could hardly tell one from the other. I always liked Rene Iatba’s "I Am the Best Artist" mural painted along a fence on Wooster. It was almost always the first thing I saw in Manhattan, since the mural was close to where we parked, close to the Holland Tunnel. “I Am The Best Artist,” however, has washed away like paint washed away by lots of rain, perhaps in an attempt to express the shared fleeting nature of our common transitory existence—something not even the Great Ones like Neal Pollack can escape. Ali-like, the spray-painted mural represented the chest-thumping swollen ego proclaiming itself the motherfucking man. It wasn’t for the sake of art or proletarian blight, but a sake of its own. But wait. It’s trickier than that, right? . . . The Great Ones get beyond themselves? They might (like) transcend. They might have Viral Greatness, something that infects others to recognize Greatness within. Remember George Plimpton at the end of “When We Were Kings” pomping about Ali’s semi-spontaneous poem: “Me, We.” Remember all those religious types doing outrageous stuff and thereby embodying a spiritual something that’s ours to pick up on: the Christ-within, the Buddha-Nature, a pantheistic something inherent in all things that (oh shit) must be in us too. “I Am the Best Artist” are words to be read, and when we (not Rene Iatba) read them we say, “I Am the Best Artist.” Key point #1: We are reflected in the mirror the artist sets up to admire himself.
So what’s this all have to do with McSweeney’s Big Night? What’s this have to do with Neal Pollack’s Anthology of American Literature? Will Neal Pollack, the greatest living American writer, ever vino-slurp from labia-crucifixion rings provided by Rene Iatba? (See image) Yeah, yeah . . . Assertions. Exaggerations. Overinterpretations. A generous ego incorporating the masses into itself for universal benefit . . . But it’s so much trickier than that, right? It’s much trickier when the ego in question belongs to Neal Pollack, the greatest living American writer.
ABOUT NEAL POLLACK
Isn’t Neal Pollack simply Dave Eggers’ Henry Bech? Isn’t he just another writerly goy’s Semitic alterego? He’s not Dave Eggers—nope. Mr. Eggers attended in a dark and generously cut suit, his signature curls gleaming to product-enhanced perfection. When onstage Eggers kept his eyes on his no-doubt nice shoes, and even selected an audience member to stand next to him and maintain eye contact. Does he come off soft-spoken, bashful, and very likeable seeming? He does. Next to the generally seated Eggers (more about him later) was Zadie Smith (more about her later), then Neal Pollack. I saw him with my own eyes. Formally garbed in black jacket, t-shirt, and jeans, his naturally short hair also shone with product.
Neal Pollack is the Burt Reynolds of the Cannonball Run Literati. Unibrow and black mustache run parallel across a handsome swarth. He giggles post-feministically at his own jokes about fucking 100-year-old Cuban whores who look a lot like camarones. Part-Mailer, part-Hemingway, several parts Mark Leyner (without the verbal acrobatics, with many of the tropes from Et Tu, Babe), Neal Pollack incites the crowd to incite him to chug, and then dramatically does just that, employing shitloads of histrionics to down pints of beer, highballs, shots, even water. Mr. Pollack feigns exhaustion after reading a story I’ve entirely forgotten, and John Hodgman, MC and Former Professional Literary Agent, appears stage-right to drape a white robe across Mr. Pollack’s bowed shoulders. The crowd’s applause refreshes Mr. Pollack’s spirit, he throws off the cape, imitating the Godfather of Soul arisen to read another work of genius made manifest.
Mr. Pollack cracked me up five or six times (Internal Richter Scale readings: 5.9, 4.3, 6.2, an 8.3, a 6.7, and possibly even another in the sixes which may have just been gas, however). Laughter was most effectively accessed with lines describing the roaring surf crashing into the shore like waves, or describing Cuba as a “mossy marble,” or whenever his overblown deep-purple prose scanned the horizons while sitting with picket-fence stakes firmly up his ass, careening there and back again over the line separating plain and cheesy bad from delicious and evil good.
Mr. Pollack satirizes the self-important
writer until he is the self-important writer. Neal Pollack, like a lot
of McSweeney’s Big Night, is an act, a variety show a la silly literati.
An alternative for all those who’d prefer to remain way too hip to enjoy
the Wisconsin-based radio show Prairie Home Companion. There is
a reason they choose Williamsburg’s Galapagos for McSweeney’s Big Night.
It isn’t the tall beer glasses they’re attracted to . . . it’s the big
street-side window and the reflecting pool of water just inside that reflects
the street and the outside when you lean against the bar.
I can only speak of the act, since I haven’t read The Anthology yet. I will maybe. I could have been first in line to buy a copy. A closing sing-along from “Annie” sent me leaning toward the exit and then Mr. Pollack stormed past me with a bouquet of plastic roses and aforementioned white robe, striding to a table to victoriously sell/sign copies of the Anthology and posters of the author in nude repose. I, however, snuck out past the reflecting pool and the doorman. And entered my first night without Zadie Smith.
The proceedings began with a touchingly rendered introduction to McSweeney’s Big Night by Mr. Hodgman, a likeably arrogant, aristocratic, Aryan-looking man in a satiny-green smoking jacket (apparently one of a collection of such jackets). O.Henry-award winning writer Arthur Bradford took the stage and played along on and smashed two guitars as he read a cute story about bees, voodoo, aggression, S-curved backs and the crooked girls they support. Colleen Werthmann (a psychotically intense, long-haired, crossdressing Jim Carrey in owl glasses and red leather pants) tried her hardest to use the words padded and pell-mell and restrained laughter describing a masked assailant [none other than Neal Pollack, it turns out] getting wrapped burrito-like in a shower curtain before chasing her seven miles down a beach, where she collapses fetal-like and they fall in love. Zadie Smith (more about her later) stunned me in particular with more than just her tribute to Mr. Pollack’s literary accomplishments and sexual endowments. As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Pollack began with a charming spoken-word renditions of “America, The Beautiful” before announcing a 10-minute (more like 30-minute) intermission during which I harmlessly stalked Zadie Smith, staring longingly, smoking cigarettes when she smoked one, downing a rum-and-coke & cracking the ice, spinning & sniffing fantasy scents, running through opening lines about how we could go play some pool around the corner, wondering if I could be her slave [literary and otherwise] for the next thousand years.
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